Jeffrey J. Williams and Heather Steffen on "The Critical Pulse" and Literary Criticism

The Critical Pulse, Jeffrey Williams and Heather SteffenThe following is an interview with Jeffrey J. Williams and Heather Steffen, coeditors of The Critical Pulse: Thirty-Six Credos by Contemporary Critics. (For more on the book, you can read the introduction, Criticism in a Difficult Time).

Question: What is a credo?

Editors: A statement of belief. It has a religious sense, of course, but we asked literary critics of various stripes to tell us what kind of criticism they do and why they do it. So it’s on the model of classic essays like George Orwell’s “Why I Write.” The essays boil away academic coating, and the results are engaging, sometimes personal, and often surprising. The book aspires to get back to first principles, particularly since we seem to be in a transitional moment.

The book has more relevance than most academic efforts because it speaks plainly and directly; it speaks to those inside and outside literary studies; and it tries to point some directions from where we are now.

Q: So, where is literary criticism now?

EDs: It’s in a transitional moment in a few ways. Inside literary and cultural studies, we are in a moment “after theory,” but it’s not clear what is coming next. There are occasional predictions, but there’s no clear consensus nor paradigm, as there was, say, when deconstruction was the dominant theory in the 1980s and 90s. Even if one did not espouse deconstruction, one had to declare one’s position for or against it. Now it seems as if theory-wise, people use a sampler. This collection has critics put their money down.

Q: In what ways has the practice of literary criticism been affected by more general trends in the academy?

EDs: More generally, another transition is the decline of the humanities. It’s clear that higher education is shifting to a more market-based model, away from the traditional idea of the humanities and literature as central, to the idea of education as job training. So it is a fitting time for literary and cultural critics to clearly say what they do.

Related to the shifts in higher education, a further transition is the pressure on academic labor. Given that, over the past twenty years, faculty have been downsized and casualized—that is, there are fewer actual professorial positions but many more adjunct, part-time, and non-permanent positions, and also many unemployed or underemployed PhDs—it seems a pressing moment to reflect on where we might go.

Q: What do the credos cover?

EDs: They cover why people do what they do. Some give their personal stories; some talk about a specific type of criticism. Many report a commitment to politics, which motivates their criticism; others eschew that kind of position. A number of them recount people’s changes, to do work different from the ways they were trained.

They also dispel a few common conceptions. Contrary to the idea that critics have gotten away from literature, many in fact still think long and hard about what literature means and does in our culture. And contrary to the idea that most contemporary academics only care about their own research, many talk about teaching. Also, many talk about the relevance of their work to the world outside academe.

Q: How did you choose the contributors?

EDs: Our contributors come from a mix of specializations and represent different points along the academic timeline, from grad students to emeritus professors. We were also especially interested in people who regularly crossed the bridge from scholarly to non-scholarly venues. We felt that to take the temperature of criticism now, as well as point to where it’s going, we needed to hear from those not just covered by different labels of criticism but different places in the academic map. We tried to ask people beyond the usual suspects, and if they were a more established figure, we pushed them to explain their practice in a new way, to tell a story they hadn’t put in writing before, or to discuss an aspect of their work they don’t usually get to reflect on in public.

Q: What prompted the idea for the project?

EDs: Jeff was a fan of Orwell’s “Why I Write,” but the specific catalyst was probably Jeff’s rooting around in the library and coming across a series of credos published in Kenyon Review around 1950. John Crowe Ransom, the editor, had planned on publishing a collection of them, but because other things came up, he only managed to elicit ten over a few issues.

So there’s been nothing like this book, and now just seemed like the right time.

Q: Finally, what do the credos say to graduate students?

They give a behind-the-scenes look, in ways you don’t usually hear your teachers talk, of why they do criticism. It also gives some crucial ideas about criticism—for or against politics, literature, etc.—so it can serve as a good introduction to the field in standard “Introduction to Graduate Study” courses.

The credos also tell a set of life stories, and some of them demonstrate that the way career trajectories play out is not always the way they are planned. Good or bad, they show that unexpected events shape one’s career, so the possibilities for growing and changing who you are as a scholar over time may be more expansive than some students think in our time of tough job markets.

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